The Mystery of 47

the shape of the number 47 in the clouds

I no longer believe in the Easter Bunny, and I’m beginning to wonder about Santa Claus. But I believe wholeheartedly in 47.

I see it everywhere—in my ticket stub from the dry cleaning that I dropped off yesterday, in the change from my coffee and pastry this afternoon and the time on the clock (1:47) when I woke in the early morning hours one day last week thinking about this article.

This strange and—as some consider it—magical number, has me completely bound by curiosity and gullibility. As children, we are told of magical creatures and we accept their existence, much as we accept the awesome comforting power of our “blankies.” But as adults we remember with a bit of resentment the day our older brother or cousin exposed the “real” identity of the man with the beard or that egg-wielding rabbit. And yet, as the holidays roll around, we hold onto that warm feeling of magic that our adult sensibilities cannot explain away. Like that magical holiday warmth, the number 47 serves as a conduit to a deeper mystery—in this case, the magic of Pomona College.

In the film Towering Inferno, actor Richard Chamberlain ’56 was the 47th person in line to be rescued. And he was reported to have worked 47 weeks of the year while starring in the television series Dr. Kildare.

For the uninitiated, there’s no easy introduction. Depending on your point of view, you might call it a tradition built around trivia, or you might call it Pomona’s link to the deep structure of the universe. For instance, were you aware that the organ case in Lyman Hall has exactly 47 pipes? Or that Pomona’s traditional motto, “Pomona College: Our Tribute to Christian Civilization,” has 47 characters? Did you know that at the time of Pomona’s first graduating class in 1894 there were 47 students enrolled? And if you want to go deeper into the mystery, did you notice that the last two digits in that year equal 47 times two?

To these seemingly meaningless pieces of Pomona trivia, some may reply: So what? To those doubters, this article is a reply, an assertion of faith and—yes—a challenge.

On the campus of Pomona College, in the residence hall named Florence Carrier Blaisdell and Della Mullock Mudd Hall (47 characters), the staircase on the east end of the building has 47 balustrades from the bottom step to the top. At one time, a chandelier with 47 glass baubles hanging from it graced the front lobby. And the Della Mullock Mudd portion of the hall was completed in 1947.

Pomona College has been rich in traditions throughout its history, as a glance through a few Metates will confirm. But among these traditions—a ceremony here, a song there—the 47 tradition stands out as unique. After 35 years of rolling through dorm rooms and cafeterias, through yearbooks and issues of The Student Life, today it seems to be as strong as ever.

Why 47? Why not 23 or 39? Is it truly a number integral to the workings of the universe or just a part of Pomona lore? How has it remained such an important part of Pomoniana so long? And why is it so hard to get a simple explanation of its origins?

For me, what began as a simple assignment—to update the long list of 47 sightings—has metamorphosed into a personal quest. I’ve spent long hours of detective work tracking down clues that sometimes seem to lead in every direction. And slowly, the mysteries at the heart of 47 have begun to come to light.

Sir Francis Drake returned from his circumnavigation of the world with enough stolen Spanish treasure to repay his backers their investment 47 times over.

The tale of the origin of Pomona’s relationship to its favorite number is as fleeting as sightings of the number are beguiling. The story—actually several tellings consolidated into one—starts like this... 

In the summer of 1964 students of a National Institutes of Health-sponsored summer program at Pomona College began some extracurricular experiments to quench their curiosity over the occurrence of random numbers—questioning the existence of patterns in nature. Two of these students—Laurens “Laurie” Mets ’68 and Bruce Elgin ’68—secretly embarked on their own experiment involving the number 47.

As told today by Mets, the experiment was meant to determine whether 47 shows up randomly in nature more often than any other number. As something of a lark, they started with the hypothesis that the number would appear in two percent of all California license plates. “So we jumped in the car and took to the streets of Claremont to do some counting,” said Mets. They literally counted the number of times they saw those two digits in a license number and then determined the rate of occurrence. “Oddly enough, we found that our hypothesis was true.” 

Elgin remembers the story a bit differently. In fact, as he recalls it, the license plate experiment was a failure. “Well, at one time, Laurie said that somebody he knew said that 47 came up in several experiments,” said Elgin. Then within the next week he remembers seeing the popular Rolaids commercial on TV claiming that Rolaids can absorb up to 47% of its weight in excess acid. “It was like a loud voice in my head, and I suddenly realized, ‘we have the secret to the universe. Let’s go prove it.’”

The Disney comedy The Absent-Minded Professor features a basketball game filmed at Pomona’s old Renwick Gym. The final score: 47-46.

And so the frenzy began. “We started counting everything,” said Mets. “We had people all over campus counting everything.”

Along with proving, at least to their own satisfaction, their loosely held theory that 47 appeared in nature more often than any other number, their counting also produced the first long list of sightings. When the summer was over, said Mets, the list of supporting evidence collected was approaching the magical number of 47 files of 47 facts each. Today—alas—those files are missing.

That summer, the phenomenon proved to be more powerful than their license plate experiment. As part of the summer program, the newly arrived statistician Donald Bentley, now Pomona’s Lingurn H. Burkhead Professor of Mathematics, showed his students a parody of a proof illustrating that all numbers are equal. Although it was meant to be used as a classroom lesson on statistical computing, leave it to the 47-hunters to twist the proof to mean that all numbers equal 47.

In the freshman class that entered Pomona in the year 2000, there were 47 valedictorians.

Today, that proof is a bit infamous. According to Kenneth Cooke, professor emeritus of mathematics, “It was only a trick proof. With elementary algebra, some simple steps and something that’s not allowed, you get a ridiculous answer.”

Not surprisingly, the legend of the proof did not fade. Tucked into the pages of a scrapbook kept by the Pomona College Math Department is a handwritten copy of the so-called proof. Written at the top left corner is a note identifying it, “This is the original proof that 47 is equal to every other number.” The familiar structure of a math problem cascades down the page, ending in the line, “48 = 47.” Then, as if a prescient voice from the past, another scribbled note is barely visible in the faded graphite of pencil lead, “This is not the original proof. The original was by Mets and Elgin in Summer 1964.” Signed, “Don Bentley.”

“If I had thought it would last more than a month, I would have started writing down the 47 sightings,” said Elgin today. “I thought it would be something to do for the summer. But I think that it was something that tied us together at a personal level. We didn’t want to give it up as the year went on. This was a connection I made that I really valued. It brought us together and allowed us to go out and do crazy things.”

“The distinguished Class of ’47, which

            rose from the ashes of the


And with Genghis Khan their leader,

            marked “Forty-Seven” for


—from a poem written by Gina Hole ’47

The pieces of 47 trivia collected from dusty display cases, duct-taped scrapbooks and obscure Web sites fall into three basic categories: world history, science and math and Pomoniana.

A History of the World According to 47, as one would imagine, reads a bit like something pieced together from sixth-grade term papers:

In 47 B.C., Caesar proclaimed “veni, vidi, vici.” Later, the Christian Bible reported in Genesis Chapter 47 that Jacob died at the age of 147. The New Testament credits Jesus with 47 miracles, and it is said that the King James version of the Bible was the work of 47 scholars.

In Japan in 1701, Lord Asano Takumi was obliged by etiquette to commit suicide after he drew his sword in the palace reacting to the insults of Kira Kotsuke no Suke. Becoming ronin (masterless samurai), Takumi’s 47 followers swore to avenge their dead master in a story that lives on as the Legend of the 47 Ronin. 

In American history, it should be noted that the Declaration of Independence consists of 47 sentences. And Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa was killed by a barrage of 47 bullets in 1923. In 1935, 147 prostitutes working for mobster Lucky Luciano in New York were arrested, though not one got a jail sentence. In 1947, inventor Earl Tupper introduced Tupperware and the Tupperware party.

In 1957, Elvis took 47 to the top of the Billboard Pop charts in the song, “Jailhouse Rock”: “Number 47 said to number 13, you’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see.” The first In-n-Out fast-food restaurant opened in 1948 in Baldwin Park, California, and served exactly 47 burgers in its first day of operation.

There are 47 strings on a concert harp, and professional football teams are limited to 47 players. And in France, the Sorbonne is located at the intersection of the Rue des Ecoles and the Boulevard St. Michel in Paris. Its address on both streets is No. 47.

Scientists and mathematicians have not hesitated to take special note of those occasions when the number 47 arises from nature itself. The claims include these: It takes 47 divisions of one cell to produce the number of cells in the human body. There are 50,847,478 prime numbers less than one billion. The element with the highest conductivity is silver, whose atomic number is 47. A pint is 0.47 liters. The Pythagorean Theorem is Proposition 47 of Euclid’s Elements. The tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are located 47 degrees apart.

Perhaps the number reached its final frontier—going where no number has gone before—as part of television and film trivia history, thanks to Joseph Menosky ’79. As a writer and co-producer for the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Menosky included the number 47 in almost every episode he wrote. The crew stops at Sub-space Relay Station 47. Data is unconscious for 47 seconds. There are 47 survivors on a planet. The crew discovers element 247.

Other writers took up the 47 gauntlet, and today there are carefully compiled lists of 47 sightings from the gamut of Star Trek sequels and films.

Pomona College was mentioned in the Los Angeles Times 47 times in 1999-2000.

Whatever the truth behind the 47 legend—whether it’s a mystery or a minor bit of whimsy gone wild—it’s undeniable that to members of the Pomona family, this particular number has become much more than a number. In 1967 Everett Bull ’71 arrived on campus as a freshman and Stan Hales ’64 returned to campus as a professor in the math department. Both were struck with 47’s presence on campus. “When I came back to campus people were already in the habit of noticing occurrences of 47, so I joined in the fun,” said Hales. Today, as Pomona's Osler-Loucks Professor of Science and Professor of Mathematics, Bull heeds the power of 47 but is unable to explain it. “It’s part of the culture, part of the fun of Pomona,” he said. “When you need a number in class, 47 pops into your head. I don’t think it has meaning to it—it’s actually very Zen-like.”

So have we been touched by something powerful when we pass 47,000 miles on our car’s odometer or spot the number 47 in a newspaper article or a highway sign? Or is this just an example of the human mind doing what it does best—seeking order in the randomness of nature?

Certainly it felt like more than coincidence when I learned that Pomona College is located off Exit 47 of the I-10. And when I was told that 47 degrees is the approximate azimuth angle of an object on the horizon which passes through the zenith at the latitude of Claremont, there was just a bit of wonder mixed into my blank stare. And I find it downright spine-tingling to know that the Earth’s spin axis is tilted 23.5 degrees from the sun, so that the sun moves a total of—you guessed it—47 degrees from south to north across the Earth’s sky between winter and summer solstice. But is it possible to imagine that just being aware of these things makes us members of a special and distinct community?

Mets proposes that the mystery of 47 lies not in any set of occurrences that prove that 47 is a magic number but in everyone’s agreement that they do.

“This falls in a category of things that are very bonding,” said William Banks, professor of psychology at Pomona. He equates Pomona’s kinship with 47 with other bonding experiences, like those shared by members of a secret society. “This can be a secret handshake or even a mantra in meditation that only you and your meditation coach know.” In fact, these bonding episodes can be shared experiences that are not secret at all. “We all had the same professors, or went through the same experience,” said Banks. “It can be anything that we as a group have in common. More than likely having shared the same experience, no one has to remind us of it.”

In 1861 in Russia, Czar Alexander II emancipated 47 million serfs.

For Mets, that shared experience is of paramount importance. “Whenever I meet someone from Pomona who understands about 47, the conversation is always excited and personal—something extremely valuable that rarely happens with true strangers,” he said. “I know this happens to other believers as well and this is what is important to me. Why is this simple communication code, which works wonderfully across generations, so compelling? Is it because it is arbitrary? We all know that it is not. Is it because it is mysterious? Well, maybe that contributes a bit. It is clearly because acceptance of the importance of 47 denotes a frame of mind and spirit that is comfortably familiar among those who suffer the same fate.”

Maybe, in the final analysis, it’s not the occurrence of 47 in nature that is important but the number’s ability to evoke a feeling of nostalgia for Pomona—to awaken, in a glance, all those sleeping memories of life here. And it doesn’t just work for Pomona alumni, but for anyone who has experienced the richness of this place. Of that, I believe, I am proof.

So I challenge any remaining nonbelievers to question the power of 47—to call it a fluke or unimportant. On second thought, take your doubts elsewhere and don’t bother me. I’m hunting 47s.

From the Fall 2000 issue of Pomona College Magazine

By Sarah Dolinar, whose office address in Pomona’s Alexander Hall [was] Room 247.